Fad-free performance management

IT magazine articles and whitepapers regularly publish articles such as, “Building a high performing team”, “Reinventing the workforce”, “Transforming the organisation” and the like. These articles have stories from large (usually overseas) companies where the CIO has turned an under performing organisation around (with the help of a brand name consulting firm with their brand name methodology). Local CIOs and IT managers read these articles and begin to believe they too need a major transformation program in order to turn their IT organisation into a “world-class” “high-performing” organisation.

Amidst all this hype about transformation and reinvention IT organisations forget to check if the organisation is performing the basics of people and performance management effectively. I have seen several IT organisations in which managers and team leaders are unclear about the requirements of their jobs. Apart from the mandatory annual performance review these employees are not given any feedback about how well they are performing their roles. If you ask an employee how their role supports the IT departments goals (or business goals) they often have no idea.

IT managers give many excuses as to why their employees have little understanding of their roles. Firstly, as IT managers come from technical ranks they have no people management training. Secondly, IT managers don’t like to have difficult conversations with their staff. Thirdly, many managers themselves are not clear about the business and IT strategy goals. No matter what the excuse, the end result always leads to the same outcome, an under-performing IT organisation! So what can be done? Here are some thoughts on how CIOs and IT managers can begin to manage performance.

IT managers give many excuses as to why their employees have little understanding of their roles. Firstly, as IT managers come from technical ranks they have no people management training. Secondly, IT managers don’t like to have difficult conversations with their staff. Thirdly, many managers themselves are not clear about the business and IT strategy goals. No matter what the excuse, the end result always leads to the same outcome, an under-performing IT organisation! So what can be done? Here are some thoughts on how CIOs and IT managers can begin to manage performance.

Five fad-free steps

Here are five fad-free steps to get to high performing teams. These are:

  1. Clarify the role,
  2. Understand customer needs,
  3. Improve things you manage
  4. Develop your team and
  5. Perform the role in the right way

1. Clarify the role

Every organisation and role exists to perform a function. At a basic level, the IT group normally exists to enable business by providing effective technology solutions that support business activities. The IT group is also responsible for running the technology operations in a cost effective, reliable and secure manner.  Each function within IT must directly or indirectly support these goals. Some teams focus on understanding business goals and needs; designers design solutions that are fit for purpose, developers build these solutions and operations staff ensure these solutions run reliably. Thus, understanding the role purpose is really not that complicated.

Most organisations have job descriptions of some kind. If they don’t, then the first step is to create one. I believe every job function, especially management roles, should meet the needs of the customers, improve people/process/technologies and work and behave in the ‘right way’ (team work, respect, enthusiasm etc). Sounds obvious don’t it? However, you would be surprised how many people don’t understand these expectations because many job descriptions fail to make these expectations clear.

2. Understand the needs of the customers

Every role has a customer. It exists to serve someone. Even the managing director has to serve the shareholders/ board. Most IT roles have internal customers. However, with the emergence of e-commerce, Internet banking and similar services, IT in fact services ‘real’ business customers. In addition to the direct customer needs, IT roles also need to understand the organisation’s needs. These are typically expressed via strategies, values, standards and architecture/ design principles.

Many IT people can become so inwardly focussed (because of processes, departments and skill-sets) that they forget that their role is to serve the needs of the customers. For infrastructure staff, their customers could be applications teams and for architecture staff, designers. Identifying who the customers are and ensuring that their needs are understood is the key to good performance.

3. Improve ‘things’ that you manage

Every manager is responsible for people, processes that control how the work is done and technology (e.g. applications and infrastructure assets). These elements together determine the effectiveness of service delivery and level of customer satisfaction. Even technicians and developers have systems that they look after, manage, fix, control.

Everyone is expected to improve the assets that they manage. This is fundamental part of a professional’s job and not an optional extra! There are many ways improvements can be made such as keeping applications maintainable, improving flexibility, reducing running costs, streamlining processes and improving service levels.

What if employees don’t have the authority or resources to make these improvements? At the very least, employees are expected to show how ‘things’ are better this year than the last and what they have done to make a difference, given the resources available to them. Ultimately, it is the role of managers to convince the ‘powers-to-be’ that improving the assets they manage is an integral part of the job of each employee and support the employees in this endeavour.

4. Develop your team

Improving their team and the people they manage are arguably the most important outcomes managers should be expected to demonstrate. Helping people grow, helping them improve their skills, giving them opportunities learn, gain more experience and deal with new challenges is not only important for the organisation but also for the manager. It helps the manager do their own job better and make a difference.

Developing people involves balancing individual aspirations and capability with the goals of the organisation as well as seeking development opportunities and empowering staff (i.e. giving them the tools and resources to succeed) where appropriate. The key to successful empowerment is to give staff information about the mission, objectives, strategy and dynamics of the organisation so that they can make the right decisions. Successful empowerment also involves providing support for staff if they fail, so that they can learn from their mistakes.

The key to managing for performance is to identify talent in employees and provide the right opportunities and rewards for these employees to take on more responsibilities. One organisation I knew measured managers on whether they were “exporters” or “importers” of talent.

5. Performing the role in the ‘right way’

Many IT people see their role in as being purely technical because the technical part of the job is what they are most comfortable with. However, customers and others expect more from IT staff than just technical expertise. Customers want better service and better solutions. They want IT staff to be responsive, reliable, collaborative and demonstrate team work. Many job descriptions and managers just assume that their staff know ‘the right way’ and don’t set correct expectations or address customer service in performance feedback discussions. This does not have to be a complicated process. I have seen some managers discuss these issues regularly in team meetings in which key customers and peers are invited to share their expectations. As a result, IT staff is encouraged to develop team values and behaviours.

Managing for performance

Most people want to do a good job. It is the manager’s role to clarify what a ‘good job’ or good performance means and how it would be measured. Clarifying the role expectations is the first step in managing for performance. Putting this into practice involves effort i.e. not just in formal performance reviews, but also in regular interactions with their teams.

Managing for performance need not be difficult. One does not need fads or big transformation programs or big slogans to get it right. People see through these big words when actions on the ground fail to match the slogans and strategies.

Keep it simple and fad-free! Get the basics right and ‘high performing teams’ will emerge.

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